Nature and Biodiversity

EU to use satellites to combat forest fires and illegal logging

Factors like illegal logging and climate change is causing more wildfires in Europe, which are damaging forests.

Climate change is taking a mounting toll on Europe's forests, increasing the risk of wildfires and degrading their CO2-storing capacity. Image: Pexels/Valentin S

Kate Abnett
Reporter, Reuters
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  • The European Commission has proposed a new forest monitoring system that will use satellites to track climate threats such as wildfires and illegal logging.
  • Climate change is taking a mounting toll on Europe's forests, increasing the risk of wildfires and degrading their CO2-storing capacity.
  • The new system will collect data from the EU's Copernicus Sentinel satellites and require member states to gather ground measurements.
  • The data will help to predict how forests are responding to climate change and track other risks, such as illegal logging.

Climate change is taking a mounting toll on Europe's forests, as extreme heat and drought increase the risk of deadly wildfires. Nearly 900,000 hectares of EU land was burned in forest fires last year, an area roughly the size of Corsica, EU data show.

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The degradation of Europe's forests spells trouble since their CO2-storing capacity is needed to meet climate targets and protect surrounding areas from flooding.

On Wednesday, the Commission proposed a law that would see Brussels collect forest data from the EU's Copernicus Sentinel satellites. EU member states would also be obliged to gather ground measurements of trends including the areas available for logging, the volume of trees and the location of ancient forests.

"We need to see the trends, need to predict better, we need to see how they are responding to climate change," EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters.

"At this moment there are no comprehensive monitoring requirements to provide an overall picture of the state of our forests," he said.

The new data will also help track other risks, like illegal logging, across national borders, Sinkevicius said.

The EU has clashed with countries including Poland over this issue. The European Court of Justice ruled in March that Poland's policy of allowing logging during birds' breeding seasons breached EU environment laws. The court also ruled in 2018 against Warsaw's authorisation of logging in the ancient Bialowieza forest.

Campaign group Fern welcomed the EU proposal as "a potentially golden opportunity" to provide the data needed to protect Europe's forests. However, the group said the law should go further and compel EU countries to then take action to improve forests' health.

Brussels says forest data currently provided by member states has gaps and often long delays, hampering their ability to prepare for climate hazards.

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